Unlocking the secrets to safer, more efficient energy production

After the energy bust in the 1980s, many felt that Colorado would never again be a leader in the energy industry. But more than 25 years later, Colorado is again a player, with major oil and gas companies partnering with the state’s research institutions to discover new ways to reach traditional fossil fuels in the state and bring them to market economically.

Fracking and horizontal drilling are just two of the innovations that have helped move Colorado’s industry forward in the past decade, but much more research is going on in all aspects of oil and gas drilling and production.

Oil shale has become the country’s next great hope for energy production. Its problem has always been that oil and gas locked within tiny pores in the shale are much harder to reach than large reservoirs of oil and gas.

That’s where the state’s universities come in. The Colorado School of Mines, Colorado State University and the University of Colorado Boulder are all working toward making the world’s existing energy production technologies more efficient and more environmentally friendly.

“There’s a lot of talk about how there is no [commercially viable] technology, but that’s not true,´ said Jeremy Boak, director of the Center for Oil Shale Technology and Research at Colorado School of Mines. “There are some experimental approaches out there that are quite novel. Rather than mining it and sticking it in a specialized furnace, another approach is to cook it underground. Shell has been working on that for 20 years or more. We’re still making technological advances; there are still interesting developments going on, like how do you get the heat into the rock? How do you get the hydrocarbons out once the heat is generated?”

Learning how to manage horizontal wells and how to fracture successfully in them has been one of the biggest developments in the industry, he added.

At least in Colorado, oil shale is the next big opportunity if the right technology can be found to make it economically viable. Many of the major companies own leases on the Western Slope and two — Exxon Mobil and Total—have partnered with CSM’s Center for Oil Shale Technology and Research.

Horizontal drilling really opened up the idea of unconventional petroleum systems, said David Budd, a professor in geological sciences at the University of Colorado Boulder. “Rather than drill oil in reservoirs, why not drill where [the hydrocarbons] formed? Get it directly out of the source,” he said.

Fracking means breaking up the rocks into little pieces so that the hydrocarbons trapped in the porous rocks can be tapped. Budd and his colleagues examine different types of rocks to find out how much fuel is trapped in their pores. They also look for networks of pores so companies can angle their drills to get at larger pockets of hydrocarbons.

Colorado State University also is working with the oil and gas industry to solve issues around oil and gas development.

“We see a strong interface between energy, the environment, water and sustainability,´ said William Farland, vice president of research at CSU. “Those are all coming together now as we look at how we address these systems.”

Led by Professor Bryan Willson, CSU has done more than any group in the world to address impacts of natural gas production, helping industry partners reduce environmental effects of natural gas compression as well as improve efficiency.

“My hope is that as we pool the talents of the universities, national laboratories and industry together [we] have critical mass for Colorado to be a leader in this area,” Farland said.

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